Analysis: Assad's sleight of hand

Syrian military intelligence officers stayed behind to settle scores in Beirut.

assad 88 (photo credit: )
assad 88
(photo credit: )
The assassination of Lebanese Christian minister Pierre Gemayel on Tuesday was intended to remind the anti-Syrian forces in Beirut that President Bashar Assad has not forgiven them for forcing him to pull his army out of Lebanon in a humiliating manner. Although the Syrian occupation of Lebanon formally ended with the pullout, Syrian military intelligence officers are reported to have remained behind to settle scores with all those who dared to speak out against Assad. These officers, who operate under the guise of businessmen, have infiltrated the various Lebanese security branches and parts of the political establishment in Beirut. With the help of remaining pro-Syrian elements such as Hizbullah, the Syrians have embarked on a systematic policy of eliminating and terrorizing their critics. Gemayel was the fifth anti-Syrian figure to be killed in Lebanon in the past two years. Three other critics of the Syrian regime have been wounded in failed assassination attempts since the Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon earlier this year. Tuesday's assassination comes in the wake of increased tensions in Lebanon over the government's decision to endorse an international tribunal that would bring the assassins of former prime minister Rafik Hariri to justice. In a desperate attempt to prevent a further investigation into the Hariri murder, Assad has been trying to undermine the government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora with the help of Hizbullah. Earlier this week, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah openly declared that his followers would soon launch a campaign to get rid of the pro-US government in Lebanon. Although Nasrallah made it clear that he was talking about a non-violent campaign that would force Saniora and his government to resign, many Lebanese expressed the fear that his remarks could signal the beginning of a new civil war. Last month, Nasrallah and his masters in Damascus instructed Hizbullah ministers to resign from the government hoping that such a move would lead to its collapse. The resignations were part of a larger scheme designed to disrupt the investigation into the Hariri assassination. The slaying of Gemayel is yet another indication of how far Assad is prepared to go to avoid a situation in which he is held personally responsible for the Hariri assassination. Assad's biggest fear is that once he is implicated in the murder, he could meet the same fate as Saddam Hussein. When Assad succeeded his father, many Middle East experts and analysts predicted that the young and charismatic leader would lead his country out of the darkness and into a new era of openness and democracy. But it took Assad only a few months to prove to the entire world that, in his case, the apple does not fall far from the tree. Endorsing his father's ruthless and tyrannical tactics, Assad launched a merciless campaign against reformists and critics at home. In Lebanon, he copied his father's policy of liquidating opponents and critics. The timing of the Gemayel assassination is of particular interest because it comes only days after reports in the US media claimed that Washington was seeking Syria's assistance in ending the violence in Iraq. According to the reports, the Americans believe that Assad's Syria could play a "positive" role in ending sectarian violence and bloodshed in Iraq. Gemayel's friends are convinced that the US overtures toward Syria encouraged Assad to order the killing of another one of his foes in Lebanon. Assad may be able to help the US achieve some of its goals in Iraq, but there is no doubt that he's expecting Washington to pay a price, namely allowing him to get away with the Hariri murder and to send his army back into Lebanon. Unless the Americans comply, Assad will continue to stir up trouble not only in Lebanon, but also in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, where radical elements continue to enjoy Syria's full backing.